04/02/2013 02:18 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Fly Specs on a Big Windowpane

"The big issue is how do you heal a world which sees net worth and the gathering of creature comforts and powers and possessions as the norm of happiness? How do you get a world like that to say, 'That fellow with a black face, that gay over there, that homeless person, those are your brothers and sisters and we're all one human family.' Birth control, ordination of women, celibacy, these are fly specs on the windowpane compared with that kind of challenge." -- Fr. Richard McBrien, Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame

This quote is a rather perfect statement about the real issue and challenge in the renewal of the Christian Gospel, the human psyche and society itself. It reveals how conservatives, liberals and the media at large, believer and unbeliever both, almost all concentrate on largely symbolic issues, and very few recognize the core and foundational issue of one's underlying (largely unconscious) worldview. Only mystics, saints and various kinds of "dropouts" (who find truth outside the prevailing system of logic) see the underlying lie and illusion of most popular culture and current hot button issues. As Jesus predicted, it is only a minority who go into various "deserts" of clear seeing and come out the other side with an almost scary simplicity. Now we finally have a pope who even sees through many of the trappings and overlays of religion itself!

Most of us deal with mere symbols and symptoms, while the foundational illusion and conceit of life and death remains untouched and unchanged. For conservatives today in the United States, the symbolic issues are usually abortion and security. For liberals, it is now largely various gender issues. Yet both of these groups are invariably enthralled with power, possessions, personal control, the need to think of ourselves as right and, most especially, we are all in love with our own small self that we each want to protect, promote and privilege.

Today, in Christianity, we largely focus on the politically correct issues (celibacy, gay marriage, abortion, contraception, Latin Mass, women priests, etc.) that we can easily take sides on, while we avoid the foundational change of heart that would make us question the underlying system of valuation itself. Fr. Richard McBrien rightly calls these issues "fly specs on the windowpane." They keep us from seeing the much larger horizon, goal and direction of our lives and of culture itself. Most stay at this moralistic level, with nice, dualistic answers, never moving to a broad and true mystical seeing -- which I am convinced is the only point of mature religion.

Could this be what Jesus is referring to when he says that we should clean the inside of the dish, where all "the greed and gluttony lies," and not just our common outside concern for symbolic moral appearance? "Clean the inside of the dish and the outside will take care of itself," he says (Matthew 23:25-26). His call to honesty about intention, motivation and our real agenda is extremely enlightened because it cleanses the lens of perception itself. Only such clear eyed and honest folks can show the integrity and open heartedness that invariably wins the hearts and minds of other sincere seekers, no matter what their religion or ethnicity. Is this not the only possible way to "preach the Gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15)? Big vision creates and elicits big vision in others. The petty taking of sides only produces more of the same. We need "big soul" people now, not just turf wars.

Today, many of us are seeing that very honesty, big soul and integrity in our miraculously elected Pope Francis. He is presently pleasing the left and displeasing the right, but my guess is that he will soon displease both the left and the right if he is anything like either Francis of Assisi or Jesus of Nazareth. They both lived and preached a big hearted life that put the Great Kingdom of God above all nationalism, churchism, jingoism or any ism at all, and certainly small egoism itself. This is the true revolution and the first and final reform of everything.

Jesus and Francis were not "politically correct" by the standards of either left or right, but stood on the universal circumference of "justice, mercy, and good faith" (Matthew 23:23), as Jesus put it. For Francis, the test case of any decision was simple and clear: "How will this affect the poor, the outsider, and the already rejected?"

That question is what distinguishes something as an actual Gospel question rather than just another tribal boundary marker, which is what religion has favored and fostered for far too long. As Pope Francis has said several times now, the Christian Church has to stop being so "self-referential." We normally call that "narcissism" in individuals, and yet for some sad and strange reason we call small, self-referential morality "self-confidence" and even "courage" when done by groups! It is too often just identity politics. Groups, countries and churches can be quite narcissistic, too, when their corporate worldview has never been undercut and transformed by the upside down message of a God who creates all things in the same divine image, "shows no preferences" (Acts 10:34), and fills all the gaps in our knowledge with a silent and secret love. I am not sure if any group -- as group -- is capable of consistently gazing through such a big windowpane, but those who call themselves "church" should at least try.